Philadelphia’s health commissioner has resigned after the city’s mayor discovered that he was responsible for cremating the remains of the victims of a police bombing without informing the surviving family members.
On 13 May, 1985, the Philadelphia Police Department dropped two bombs from a helicopter on a house belonging to members of the radical Black liberation organisation MOVE, killing five children and six adults and burning 61 homes across two city blocks and leaving 250 residents homeless.
The disaster followed a decade of police hostility towards the group, culminating in a siege with police firing more than 10,000 rounds of ammunition into the home before the bombing.
Health Commissioner Thomas Farley discovered that remains found by the city’s Medical Examiner’s Office belonged to victims of the bombing, but “instead of fully identifying those remains and returning them to the family, he made a decision to cremate and dispose of them,” the mayor’s office announced on Thursday.
“This action lacked empathy for the victims, their family, and the deep pain that the MOVE bombing has brought to our city for nearly four decades,” Mr Kenney said in a statement.
Medical Examiner Dr Sam Gulino also has been placed on administrative leave “pending a full investigation,” he said.
The announcement – on the 36th anniversary of the bombing – also follows a disturbing revelation that a box of fragmented remains in a cardboard box in a Philadelphia museum were believed to be those of 14-year-old Katricia “Tree” Dotson and 12-year-old Delisha Africa, who were killed in the bombing.
Their remains were never returned to their family – for decades, they were in the custody of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and used for online training videos. The remains were reportedly transferred to Princeton University after forensic anthropologist Alan Mann took a job there.
No official or agency has faced legal consequences for their deaths or for the killings of three other children – Netta, Phil and Tomasa Africa – as well as the killings of Rhonda, Teresa, Frank, CP, Conrad and John Africa.
Mayor Kenney said he has met with members of the Africa family and apologised “for the way this situation was handled, and for how the city has treated them for the last five decades.”
He also pledged “full transparency” into the “handling – or mishandling – of all remains of every MOVE victim” and retained a law firm to perform an investigation.
The mayor offered “a formal apology to the Africa family and members of the movement on behalf of the City of Philadelphia, not just for this disgraceful incident, but also for how administration after administration has failed to atone for the heinous” bombing.
“I am profoundly sorry for the incredible pain, harm, and loss caused by that horrific day,” he said.
Mr Farley said he became aware of the remains in early 2017, and “believing that investigations related to the MOVE bombing had been completed more than 30 years earlier, and not wanting to cause more anguish for the families of the victims, I authorized Dr Gulino” to dispose of them.
“I profoundly regret making this decision without consulting the family members of the victims and I extend my deepest apologies for the pain this will cause them,” he said in a statement.
MOVE members led a silent march and day of remembrance to recognise the victims on Thursday, as the organisation demands accountability from the city, University of Pennsylvania and Princeton.